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South Korean Minister Talks Peace in Pyongyang

  • Kurt Achin

North and South Korea have opened senior-level talks in Pyongyang, after Seoul's top negotiator expressed hope the dialogue will begin the process of achieving a formal peace on the peninsula. The meeting begins as multinational negotiations on ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs resume in Beijing and on the same day that South Korea announced cutbacks in its military.

South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young arrived in Pyongyang Tuesday for cabinet-level talks. He is expected to push the North on how the two countries might eventually agree on a formal peace treaty.

North Korea invaded the South in 1950. The ensuing three-year war ended with an armistice, signed by a United States-led command, China, and North Korea. South Korea did not sign the truce, and technically remains at war with the North.

Kim Chun-sig, director-general for inter-Korean cooperation at the South's Unification Ministry, says the ministerial talks can begin a peace process, but must take second priority to the discussions this week in Beijing.

Mr. Kim says South Korea is ready to take the initiative toward arranging a peace treaty with the North, but that can only come after Pyongyang has agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.

China, Russia, the United States, Japan and South Korea are trying to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear ambitions in exchange for security guarantees, diplomatic initiatives, and economic assistance. A fourth round of talks on the issue resumed Tuesday in Beijing.

The South's unification minister, Mr. Chung, also said Tuesday he wants to use the meeting in Pyongyang to support the efforts of negotiators in Beijing.

Also Tuesday, Seoul announced it would cut its military forces by a quarter by the year 2020, to 500-thousand troops. The personnel reductions would be offset by high-technology weapons, on which South Korea plans to spend nearly $280 billion over the next 15 years.

South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung says the troop cuts are part of a broader program of military restructuring.

Mr. Yoon says South Korea's military needs change to become more efficient and to reflect changing world circumstances.

South Korea pursues a policy of cooperation and peaceful engagement with North Korea. A Defense Ministry White Paper eliminated the term "main enemy" to describe the North earlier this year. Despite the North's army of more than a million soldiers, the Stalinist country's threat is widely viewed as diminishing due to its severe energy and food shortages.

The United States has maintained military bases in South Korea for 60 years, and currently has about 32,000 troops there. However, Washington plans to cut the number to closer to 25,000 over the next few years.